William Bennett, 78; Opened Las Vegas to Mid-American Masses

Times Staff Writer

William G. Bennett, a furniture store chain owner and failed investor who found new ways to market the glittery glamour of Las Vegas to the Middle American masses, has died. He was 78.

Bennett, a multimillionaire philanthropist who refashioned the Las Vegas Strip for the non-wealthy and their families, died Sunday in that city's Desert Springs Hospital following a lengthy illness. He had suffered a heart attack in 1996.

As chairman of Circus Circus Enterprises from 1974 to 1994, Bennett turned around the failing flagship Circus Circus resort, and extended the Strip southward by building the themed mega-resorts Excalibur in 1990 and Luxor in 1993.

In 1995, he worked to strengthen the northern end of the Strip by buying and renovating the 50-year-old Sahara.

Over several decades, Bennett pioneered trends to lure quantity over quality spenders, concentrating on drawing millions of the slot-machine crowd from the heartland, rather than the thousands of high-rollers already flying in to the pricey resorts.

And he added rides and entertainment, such as the Sahara's virtual-reality motor sports Speedworld, to persuade the gamblers to bring along their children.

Born in Glendale, Ariz., the son of a rancher, Bennett served as a Navy dive-bomber pilot during World War II. After the war, he built a Phoenix-based furniture store chain, which he sold in 1962 to go into a friend's investment business. But because of mismanagement by other officials and the resulting scandal, Bennett was bankrupted.

By 1965, he was working as an employee of Del Webb Corp. developers, which hoped to bring businessmen into its casino operation. Bennett began at the company's Sahara Tahoe, learning the resort business as casino host at night and in various hotel departments by day.

Within a year, he was transferred to downtown Las Vegas to manage the company's Mint resort.

Bennett left Del Webb in 1971, with $5 million in stock options, and teamed up with Reno's Bill Pennington to lease novelty electronic gambling machines to casinos. In 1974, the two men leased the failing Circus Circus with an option to buy, which they exercised shortly before taking the company public in 1983.

The businesslike Bennett focused on providing value at low prices at the circus-themed hotel and casino, knowing that masses of people spending even a few dollars each would translate into profits.

He increased the number of slot machines and streamlined their management, and kicked out those unscrupulous midway vendors who angered customers by fleecing them.

Most important, he sought out the Las Vegas-bound drivers without hotel reservations by advertising widely and boldly on radio: "Rooms available; if not, we'll place you."

The partners added resorts in Reno and newly emerging Laughlin, Nev., then built the $300-million Excalibur, with its King Arthur theme, and the $375-million Luxor, replicating ancient Egyptian temples, hieroglyphic inscriptions and even King Tutankhamen's tomb.

After 20 years as chairman, Bennett was booted out in 1994 by stockholders angry at declining stock prices and by management unrest over his tight hold on the company reins.

The following year, in a litigation battle over purchase of the old Hacienda property south of the Luxor, he was also forced off the Circus Circus Enterprises board.

After Bennett's departure, the company used the acquired Hacienda property as the site of its first upscale resort, Mandalay Bay, and renamed itself Mandalay Resort Group.

In 1995, Bennett sold his stock in Circus Circus for $230 million and bought the Moroccan-themed Sahara for $193 million, then spent $100 million to renovate it.

With Ralph Engelstad, he also developed the $200-million Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They sold the complex in 1998.

In September, Forbes magazine listed Bennett as 368th on its list of the 400 richest people in America, with a worth of $600 million. His Bennett Foundation has given more than $10 million to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

"Bill Bennett was one of the Strip's top profit-producers for almost a 20-year stretch," Bill Thompson, casino industry expert and UNLV professor, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after Bennett's death. "He cut costs everywhere, but he understood his market: middle-class Americans. The regular guy can afford Las Vegas because of guys like Bill Bennett."

Widowed and remarried, Bennett is survived by his wife, Lynn; two children, Diana and William A.; a stepdaughter, Laura Lynn; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Bennett Foundation, 2535 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109.

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